Roman Mars: This is 99%invisible I’m Roman Mars.
[TV cross talk] This is Attorney Blah, blah. Brown and [inaudible] The Hammer Stanley. And I’ll get you lots of money for your blah, blah injuries, broken bones, [inaudible]
Victim, victim, victim. Call me! Call me. Call now! Call me right now! 459 [scream]
Roman: Our friend Sean Cole has always been impressed by lawyer ads.
Sean Cole: I would say more totally confused by lawyer ads. I mean, I’m just like, really? Like is disaster footage or your cousin wearing a judges robe the best way to represent your practice? but I started looking into them these lawyer ads, in particular, this sort of fly-by-night-y, bottom feeder-y ones. And Oh, I fell down the well into the Byzantine, crazy, subterranean wonderland of lawyer advertising regulation which has [inaudible] to it and factions and there’s this seemingly endless civil war in lawyer nation about whether lawyers should advertise their services at all. But first let’s just enjoy and indulge ourselves in some of the more excessive, ney surreal examples of the genre. Maestro.
Roman: Here we go.
Male: If you been in an auto accident, here are a few important tips, Don’t give a statement—
Sean Cole: So this are the kinds of commercials you see at three in the morning on basic cable when everything is going wrong in your life. You’ve got your sort of central casting lawyer in front of bookshelf, for whom every syllable and hand gesture is a hurdle.
Male: We understand the serious effects that an auto accident can have on your life.
Sean: But then you have your performers.
Lowell Stanley: Preliminary injured? Size matters! The bigger you check the better. I’m Lowell “The Hammer” Stanley.
Sean: I love Lowell “The Hammer” Stanley. There are images of airborne cars engulfed in flames playing behind him right now.
Lowell Stanley: I don’t stop hammering until the size of your check satisfies you. Call me and let’s talk about size, Lowell “The Hammer” Stanley!
Sean: There’s actually more than 1 hammer in this tool bench.
Jim Adler: I’m Jim Adler, The Texas Hammer. I avenge injustice for the injured, the mistreated and the ignored.
Sean: There’s even more than one hammer named Jim.
Jim Shapiro: I’m Jim “The Hammer” Shapiro!
Sean: I swear to God I thought this one is a joke.
Jim Shapiro: I cannot rip out the hearts of those who hurt you, I cannot hand you the severed head but I can hunt him down and settle a score or squeeze him for every dime I can.
Sean Cole: So, those the crusaders, I mean, it’s still all about money but they have a Captain America protector quality about them. In a few of these things, it’s just pure, unfettered crassness.
Female 1: I was in pain and I call Spencer and Associates and he changed my pain to rain.
Sean: At which point money falls all over her body, usually only happens in the strip club. The “paint to rain” alchemical process is fundamental to lawyer television. Your injury is a commodity and apparently cashing in is a cinch.
[background sound] Call me it’s just that easy! Call 1-877-SEE-BRAD
Bob Garfield: And you know, look, I….. granted these things are…. They’re almost majestically terrible, right?
Sean Cole: This is Bob Garfield co-host of the NPR WNYC show On The Media. For 25 years he was the ad critic for Advertising Age magazine.
Bob Garfield: There is no attempt for subtlety, it is the hard sell. There have been a few of these lawyers over the years who have tried to be funny. You know, a lot of personal injury lawyers sometimes in order to cast themselves in their own ads will do some sort of nominally comic scenario that they are the star off.
Male 2 : How can you tell when a lawyer’s lying? When his lips are moving. That is funny and lawyer jokes are great, but let’s get serious.
Bob Garfield: But basically the keywords are “call now,” call the rely on group, “now.”
Sean: Because like, obviously the cynical view is like, here are some shark–
Bob Garfield: Call the Goldwater law firm NOW.
Female 2: If you or a loved one has had a [inaudible] hip replacement, call the Goldwater Law Firm right now.
Bob Garfield: You know, I have a certain gradual respect, having looked over and over and over, for 25 years at extremely artful executions of fail obscure creative ideas. I’m am so delighted to see somebody say, “I got something to sell, I think you should buy it, call now.”
It’s honest. Now sometimes of dubious legality, because the ads themselves frequently skirt the legality of solicitation, different jurisdictions have different rules.
Sean Cole: This is what I was talking about at the beginning. Rules regarding what you can and can’t say in an ad, who can appear in your ad, and what they’re allowed to say about you. All that is regulated to tighter or looser degree by each individual state bars association and state supreme court because as proven by history, lawyers will tout themselves exactly as loudly as they’re allowed to.
Sean: Back in the 19th Century, you’d see ads for Attorneys on the front page of newspapers alongside ads for doctors and saddle and harness manufactures. But in 1908, the American Bar Association put in new rules saying all instances of self-laudation, that’s what they called it, self-laudation define the traditions and lower the tones of our high calling and are intolerable. Business cards were okay. That ban lasted about 70 years and then in 1976, the law clinic of Bates and O’Steen ran one little classified in the Arizona Republic saying, “Do you need a lawyer? legal services at very reasonable fees, divorce, adoption, bankruptcy….” And, in short, the Arizona Bar got mad and suspended the two lawyers. Bates and O’Steen appealed all the way to the US supreme court and the now infamous Bates versus State Bar of Arizona, the court ruled that lawyers have the same freedom of speech as everybody else. Gavel, gavel, lawyers can advertise.
Sean: But then all hell broke loose.
Elizabeth Tarbert: That pretty much opened up the floodgates.
Sean: This is Elizabeth Tarbert, the ethics counsel for The Florida Bar, she runs the department that regulates lawyer advertising there.
Elizabeth:: There was kind of wild wild west situation were lawyers were advertising anyway they wanted because there weren’t regulations, where there had been just flat out prohibitions So Florida actually had a couple of different blue ribbon commissions and they adopted the first set of rules and because bar leadership was very concerned about statements lawyers were making in their advertisement to try to get clients.
Sean: Elizabeth Tarbert wasn’t with the bar back then so she doesn’t know what those ads looked like. But an attorney I talked to named Steve Miller does– He’s divorce lawyer with offices in Florida and Massachusetts.
Steve Miller: Look when I started practicing— I worked for a woman in Florida doing personal injury work, And she was the one of… I’m not sure if she’s the first one on TV, but she did a lot of TV advertising and her ad went something like this: You hear a car crash, hear the sirens and then they threw a doll, a baby doll into the picture. [laughing] I’ll never forget it. I won’t say her name but it was just the worst thing that I’ve ever seen and so I’m sure that had something to do with the bar coming in and saying, “Look you can’t do music, you can’t do dramatization, you can’t have your clients come on, you can’t do that stuff.”
Sean Cole: But actually it goes way beyond that. Florida has some of the strictest guidelines in the country for these ads, for instance:
Elizabeth: Testimonials. If a lawyer writes the testimonial him or herself, that would be misleading, that’s not the person’s actual experience. If it’s not the persons’ actual experience with the lawyer, they’re not qualified to judge the lawyer, then those things would be misleading.
Sean Cole: Now, think of how many lawyer commercials you’ve seen that use testimonials.
Male 3: The insurance company kept asking me to hurry up and sign a release, I was thinking what’s the rush?
Sean Cole: Of course, some of them are written by the attorneys or their advertising consultants. Often times the actual client doesn’t even appear on the ad.
Male 4: I’m Jason Smith–
Sean Cole: He is not Jason Smith. He’s an actor performing a testimonial, which is also prohibited in Florida. Nor are you allowed in Florida to have actors playing authority figures like cops and judges saying how great the lawyer is. Nor are you allowed to have actual cops and judges saying how great the lawyer is.
Elizabeth: People inherently respond to authority figures whether they’re real or not so we prohibit their use in advertisements.
Sean: Does Robert Vaughn fall into that category?
Elizabeth: I wouldn’t consider Robert Vaughn an authority figure, he’s an actor, but he would fall within the prohibitions in the same role about using the voice or image of a celebrity.
Sean Cole: Again, kind of pervasive in other states.
Male 5: Tell the insurance company you mean business. Tell them you’ve hired Jacoby & Meyers, they go after your rights piece by piece by piece until justice has been served or they will be—
Sean Cole: Elizabeth Tarbert says the rules are meant to protect the public. That people should pick a lawyer based on what she calls “objective selection criteria” other than fancy pants promises and sound effects. If you break the rules the penalties are not really that dramatic, the worst that might happen is that you’ll get what’s known as a public reprimand, The Bar sends out a press release so your reputation is kind of marred but it’s not like you’re going to be disbarred.
Sean: So that’s Florida, there are few other states that are strict, Iowa and Texas weirdly, given that it’s home to one of the hammers.
[commercial]: Insurance companies rarely play fair and hand over a fair award. They must be hammered and hammered before they see the light. I’m Jim Hammer–
Sean: Massachusetts and Connecticut are still pretty wild westy. And if you’re a national firm operating a bunch of jurisdictions, you have to comply with multiple sets of rules. That’s what Lucian Pera has to deal with. He’s a lawyer with Adams & Reese in Memphis and among other things he advises nationwide firms on their advertising. Sometimes he’ll be looking over the disclaimer rules for example and it will be like–
Lucian Pera: Okay, state A says you got to say this, but state B, if I say what state A says, State B is going to say I can’t exactly say that. So I got to…weave together on somehow. it is a morass. I think in my opinion, it intended to do which is, it deters lawyer advertising to some significant extent.
Sean Cole: Now Lucian’s state, Tennessee is pretty loose. In fact, it’s widely reported of late as the state where you’ll see lawyer ads featuring space aliens, giant robots and both dogs and cars that can talk.
Male 7: Guys come here! All the cars in town are talking about you, [talking cars] they say you’re the go to guys for car wrecks.
Sean Cole: And even now more than 35 years later Lucian says there’s a cohort of lawyers who’ll see an ad like that and say, “Look what Bates versus State Bar of Arizona have raught!”
Lucian: There are many lawyers today, many lawyer’s today, who feel that much that is wrong with the profession today, if not all that is wrong with the profession today, dates from Bates. That lawyer advertising turned us from a profession into a business and they just think it’s undignified for lawyers to be on television, pitching their services generally, much less talking to dogs or aliens [laughing]– they just think that demeans the profession.
Sean Cole: And you don’t have to look too far down on the road in Tennessee to find one of those lawyers. Namely, Matt Hardin, a personal entry attorney in Nashville with his own practice.
Matt Hardin: I’m sorry, I’ve got a big bunch on this, the first half of this is about of the history of advertising.
Sean: Last year, he and the Tennessee Association for Justice which is a group of plaintiffs lawyers, filed two petitions to the state supreme court asking them to change the advertising rules in Tennessee, so that they essentially look more like the ones in Florida. There’s a public comment period if some first amendment advocates got involve and ultimately the court said no, but Matt is determined to keep trying. And I asked him, “And so do you think Bates was the sort of the beginning of the end like the Big Bang that created the downfall of the sort of stature of lawyers?”.
Matt Hardin: I do. I mean if you look in our history in the 50’s and 60’s you have lawyers being seen as a proponent of justice, you have things as far back is like to kill a mockingbird but those what I would called the housy on days of positive public perception attorney seem to be long gone, what most people see unfortunately is this unsavory advertising and they base their opinions on lawyers on that advertising. My biggest concern about this is how it affects the jury pool and makes people think that you’re just out for easy money.
Sean Cole: That is if people start thinking plaintiffs and their attorneys are just out for easy money they might get cynical about the process and cynical people become cynical jurors and no one gets affair trial anymore that’s the calculus. And by the way that’s not oppose to do advertising Writ Large.
Male 8: I advertise myself.
Sean: Though not on TV.
Matt Hardin: I advertise in movie theaters.
Sean: You advertise in movie theaters?
Matt Hardin: I do.
Sean: And online. His ad sound like this,
Female 3: What to do after an accident, call Matt Hardin Law your experience personal injury law firm. Our personal injury attorney–
Sean: Very different tone and visually too there just images of gobbles and ionic columns and Matt in this Ad which make me wonder if maybe there’s not something more basic about his objections to the dog and robot commercials. Is it just that you think the Ads aren’t classy?
Matt Hardin: No. I don’t think it’s up to me or anyone else to make a judgement over what the class of an Ad is?
Sean: But do you think they’re not classy?
Matt Hardin: I don’t have an opinion on that one way or another, I mean that’s not really what I’m trying to–
Sean: Really. Cause I think all of us have an opinion on that one way or another. [laughing]
Matt Hardin: I believe some people are actually turn off by that type of advertising but I don’t think they would do it if didn’t work.
Sean Cole: Do you think it works?
Matt Hardin: Absolutely it does.
Lowell Stanley: They do work yes, they do work for those that they appeal to.
Sean Cole: This is Lowell “The Hammer” Stanley.
Lowell Stanley: I am The Hammer, they are the nails.
Sean: Wow, it’s just like watching YouTube. I don’t think I mentioned Lowell “The Hammer” Stanley practices in Norfolk Virginia, he’s been a lawyer for more than 30 years and truthfully I was a little nervous about asking him what the hell was up with his Ads but he answer the question before I even got to it.
Lowell Stanley: May the Ads or the Ads are not sophisticated.
Sean Cole: I’m glad that you know that.
Lowell Stanley: If I saw my Ad, me personally I would never call me.
Sean Cole: Really?
Lowell Stanley: Yes, the Ads do not appealed to me, they are over the top and somebody reconsider them tasteless but they are not design to appeal to people like me who listen to NPR and watch PBS, they are designed to appeal to people who watch shows like Jerry Springer or things like that or good and fine decent people that they are used to commercials and they bet they’re lawyers are going to fight for them and that’s what those Ads are design to build.
Sean Cole: It sounds like a little class distinction.
Lowell Stanley: Well it maybe consider a class distinction, if you are an educated person who’s PhD or banker, you don’t need to get your lawyer from an Ad, you have friends you know somebody, you have a family lawyer, you go to them. This designed for hard working, blue collar, bus driver, a little league coach, somebody who is hurt and doesn’t know where to turn, doesn’t have a lawyer, and is afraid of lawyers and want somebody’s going to fight for him, that’s what their design to appeal to.
Sean Cole: And if that’s true there are almost certainly people in Florida who knows Ads what appeal to. And so finally I asked Elizabeth Tarbert of The Florida Bar.
If I called myself The Hammer and scream and had flaming blazing behind me, would that be okay there?
Elizabeth: I think there are aspect of that, that are not objectively verifiable which is required under our rules that you hammer them that’s a subjective term.
Sean: Right, I can’t prove that I hammer.
Roman Mars: 99 percent invisible was produce this week by Sean Cole. Collectively we are Sam Green, Katie Mingle, Avery Trufelman and me Roman Mars, a version of the story originally appeared on a podcast Life of the Law which I think you’d really like and it was edited by superstar Julia Barton. We are project of 91.7 local public radio KALW in San Francisco and produce in dutiful downtown Oakland California out of the offices of Arcsine, a firm of architects who are collaboration junkies and weird enough to want some radio producers hanging with them. God love them.